For people traveling the world in search of culture, adventure and, in a philosophical sense, themselves, it’s probably discouraging to see so many signs of American consumerism all across the globe. Virtually anywhere you go, you’re bound to see American restaurant chains serving variations on the “classics.” Is that a bad thing? Should we be avoiding these establishments in favor of eating only in local restaurants? I’ve been giving this topic a lot of thought lately and don’t profess to have the answers to all of these questions. Like most travel conundrums, this one comes down to personal preference. So, how do I feel about American chains overseas? My travel experiences will make that pretty clear.Truth be told, I don’t eat much fast food when I’m home (road trips being the exception). It’s typically unhealthy, unsatisfying and unappealing. However, I’ve found that the quality overseas is significantly better than at the American locations. I ate at a Burger King in Israel and my burger was fresher, tastier and resembled the photograph on the menu more than anything I’d ever had at one of the chain’s domestic locations.
I also ate at a Denny’s in Auckland, NZ. It was 2am, I was intoxicated and needed to get my fix of greasy breakfast foods. Some things are universal, so whether I was at home in New York City, back in college or on the other side of the world in New Zealand, Denny’s seemed like a good idea after a few drinks. Was it my favorite meal of that trip? Of course not. Did it serve its purpose? My lack of a hangover the next morning would signify that it did.
On a recent trip to Indonesia, my girlfriend and I stopped into a Pizza Hut to pick up dinner for our friends. Not only did the menu contain items that no American Pizza Hut carried, the location itself was as lovely as many high-end restaurants in New York. Much like when I was in India, it was obvious that Pizza Hut was catering to the burgeoning middle class. A trip to Pizza Hut was part of a special evening. Why’d we choose an American chain when the streets were lined with warungs serving every type of Indonesian food you could imagine? The answer to that question explains every trip to an American chain I’ve ever made overseas.
We were curious. We wanted to see the Indonesian interpretation of pizza (there were chicken sticks in the crust!). I didn’t have the Maharajah Burger at the McDonald’s I saw in India, but I wish I did. Not because I expected it to be better than any saag paneer I might enjoy there, but because I wanted to see how McDonald’s handled not being able to serve beef in the predominantly Hindu nation.
This is not to say that every bite of American food I’ve had while traveling internationally was an act of investigation. Sometimes I just want a taste of home. The longer the trip, the more likely I am to eventually crave a burger, a slice of pizza or a bagel. If I can find those in a chain, so be it. Cravings are fun to satisfy.
Whether you like them or not, American chain restaurants are becoming ingrained in cultures around the world. While many people are seeking out “authentic” experiences, they are ignoring the fact that modernization and globalization are redefining the very sense of authenticity (not that any one person can ever explain what is or isn’t truly authentic in a place – it’s a word that should be removed from every travel writers lexicon). I love eating locally and experiencing the cuisines of the world. But I also love seeing how American culture is reinterpreted to fit into the social norms of other places.
I’ll continue to visit American chains overseas (though I passed on going to the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Bali) purely out of curiosity and a thirst (pun alert) for familiar tastes. I understand why others eschew these businesses. I get that people want to fully immerse themselves in new places. For me, however, those chains are part of my immersion.
What about you? Do you eat in American chains overseas? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.